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Fostering belonging in higher education: Implications for student retention and wellbeing

12 Mar 2024 | Juliette Morgan Introducing our collaborative Building Belonging Change Impact Programme, Juliette Morgan, Advance HE Senior Consultant, Student Success, says, ‘creating a culture of belonging has become a strategic necessity’

In the Higher Education (HE) sector, fostering a sense of belonging among students has emerged as a crucial element for academic success, student retention, and overall wellbeing. As institutions work to enhance the student experience, creating a culture of belonging has become a strategic necessity. 

Research within the UK HE sector highlights the significant impact of belonging on student outcomes. A study by Thomas et al. (2018) noted that students who feel a strong sense of belonging are more likely to persist in their studies, leading to improved retention rates. This finding aligns with the broader discourse on student success, which increasingly acknowledges the role of belonging in shaping educational journeys.

The importance of belonging moves beyond academic performance. Studies have shown that students who feel connected to their institution and peers report higher levels of wellbeing (Nash et al., 2020). This correlation highlights the reciprocal relationship between belonging and mental health, with a supportive social environment serving as a buffer against stress and anxiety. 

Moreover, fostering a sense of belonging can positively impact institutional finances. Research has shown that students who feel a strong sense of belonging are more likely to persist in their studies, leading to improved retention rates. Higher retention rates mean a more stable student population, which can have financial advantages, including increased tuition revenue and reduced costs associated with recruitment and marketing efforts aimed at attracting new students to replace those who leave before qualifying.

Additionally, students who feel connected to their institution are more likely to engage with campus life, participate in extracurricular activities, and develop strong affiliations with alumni networks. These factors contribute to a positive reputation for the institution, which can attract new students and further strengthen financial standing. Building a culture of belonging incorporates various aspects, each contributing to a holistic student experience. One fundamental aspect is inclusive pedagogy, emphasising the incorporation of diverse perspectives within the curriculum (Archer et al., 2020). By integrating inclusivity into teaching practices, educators can validate students' identities and empower them in the learning process. 

In addition, institutional policies and practices play a significant role in shaping the culture of belonging. Initiatives such as mentorship programs, peer support networks, and cultural awareness training for staff can create spaces and places where every student feels valued and respected (Archer et al., 2020). Additionally, the physical environment of the campus, including facilities for social interaction and collaboration, significantly contributes to students' sense of belonging (Thomas et al., 2018). 

It is crucial that HE institutions recognise the intersectionality of belonging and consider the diverse backgrounds and experiences of their students. A study by Mendez et al. (2021) emphasised the importance of culturally responsive approaches in fostering belonging among minority and underrepresented students. By acknowledging and addressing barriers to inclusion, institutions can create a more equitable learning environment for all. 

The benefits of building a culture of belonging move beyond the individual student, to the broader academic community. Research shows that a sense of belonging is positively associated with faculty engagement and institutional loyalty (Hurtado et al., 2012). Investing in initiatives to enhance belonging not only promotes student success but could also strengthen institutional resilience and reputation. 

Considering the growing evidence base which supports the significance of belonging in the HE sector, collaboration is essential to drive meaningful change. Institutions can use partnerships with student unions, community organisations, and external stakeholders to develop robust strategies for fostering belonging (Nash et al., 2020). By sharing best practices and resources, institutions can collectively work towards creating inclusive and supportive learning environments. 

Engaging in collaborative projects, specifically the Advance HE Building Belonging change impact programme, provides institutions with valuable opportunities to construct discourse around student retention. Learning with other institutions through the programme provides opportunities to enhance individual Institutional influence and tap into shared motivations to prioritise student objectives. This collaborative programme can help to bolster the sense of belonging for students across spaces and places and can support Institutions to show a collective commitment to student success. Institutions can use a range of diverse perspectives and resources to develop innovative solutions which help to address the complex challenges of fostering belonging.  

Fostering belonging is not an ambitious goal but a strategic priority which brings tangible benefits for student retention, wellbeing, and success. Through collaboration and the integration of inclusive practices, and by addressing barriers, institutions can be supported to create cultures where every student matters and belongs, and feels valued, supported, and enabled towards their own success. 



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